But there are 5 reasons why condemning yourself for your negative behaviors doesn't work and even blocks teshuvah (repentance) and self-improvement.
#1: It's Not the Whole You or Even the Real You
When you start hissing out the whole "I'm so stupid!" or "I'm so selfish!" or "I always screw up!" or "I can't do anything right!" -- you're being dishonest.
The wholesale self-condemnations simply are not true.
Yes, you may have been stupid or selfish in a particular situation. You may even have developed the habit of being stupid or selfish. But it's not the only thing you are. You can also be unselfish and intelligent. Maybe you also tend to be efficient or loving or helpful or nurturing or disciplined or kind-hearted, along with being selfish or stupid.
And it's certainly not true that you always screw up or that you can never do anything right. Everyone does something right sometimes.
Finally, the real you at your soul level is wonderfully altruistic, caring, and profound. So even if you are selfish or stupid much of the time, those qualities were implanted within you by Hashem and don't reflect the real nor do they describe the real you.
And this is the big reason why emotional self-flagellation isn't part of teshuvah and doesn't work for self-improvement: It's just not true.
Only the truth can heal people.
#2: It gives a false feeling of remorse.
When you beat yourself up, you feel like you're doing something. You also feel self-hatred and self-disgust, which many people mistake for remorse.
Self-denigration and self-hatred are not remorse.
Genuine remorse means that you feel so bad about what you did that you desperately seek the right path to improvement. Real remorse makes a person proactive and not reactive.
Hating yourself doesn't show you how to improve, it just holds you down.
#3: It gives a false feeling of effort.
Furthermore, because of the adage "Knowing is half the battle!", many people forget that knowing is only half the battle. There's still the whole other half of the fight. So a lot of people just stop at hating themselves and beating themselves up, without making any improvement at all.
Finally, many people unconsciously prefer self-hatred and self-denigration to actual self-improvement. The transition stage of self-improvement can definitely feel like a hermit crab without its protective shell. You've given up one behavior or attitude (sur mi'ra/turn from evil), but you may not be sure how to implement a new behavior or attitude or what exactly that new behavior or attitude should be (v'aseh tov/and do good). This stage can be VERY uncomfortable and awkward. You may find yourself bouncing around until you get the right fit.
Even more discomfiting, there is no way to know when the transition stage will end.
So many people unconsciously choose self-denigration rather than endure that discomfiting transition phase.
#4: Confession Only Works with God, Not with People
Many times, when a person is confronted with their problematic behavior or they feel their bad middot are showing, they'll start putting themselves down with: "I'm stupid, I'm selfish, etc."
Sometimes, this is even a secret cry for help or compassion.
But the other person can't absolve you or fix you. Only Hashem can do that.
Yes, if you've hurt someone you can ask for and receive their forgiveness. But likely your sin in the wronged person's eyes isn't that you are wholly stupid or selfish, but that you've actually done something wrong that hurt them. You need to say, "I'm sorry that I did this-and-such," not "I'm sorry that I'm just a hopeless screw-up" (which, as we said above, is not even true.)
Sure, you're friends can validate and encourage you when you're feeling low. But if you really feel that there is something intrinsically wrong with you, other people can't fix it for you.
And if it's something really problematic, people aren't even going to be able to tell you honestly that it's okay or not such a big deal. It may not be okay at all. Like, if you say, "You know what? I just can't stop spreading false rumors about people. I'm really addicted to this behavior!" No one can reassure you about this, although they can certainly reassure you that you can overcome it if you really want to. They can also tell you that there is a wonderful you underneath the ugly rumor-mongering husk.
But they can't fix you or even like you very much, depending on what it is.
Yet Hashem definitely loves you a tremendous amount and He placed that negative quality within you, so He can also help you rid yourself of it.
(Remember: Hashem is fully Omnipotent and Can Do Anything.)
Note: A particularly high-level tzaddik possessing profound insight can provide you with individualized guidance on how to rectify your particular issues. But it's unusual to find someone of this ability, particularly in our times.
#5: Denigrating Yourself Manipulates Both You & the Other Person
Let's say you gently let me know that I really hurt you. If I respond, whether sarcastically or petulantly or even blithely, "You're right. I'm so selfish, stupid, etc.", then what have I done?
I've made you into the offender and me into the victim.
But that's a false narrative. If I hurt you, then you are the victim and I am the offender.
By denigrating myself, it looks like I've confessed and acknowledged my faults.
But I haven't! Instead, I'm turning it around to make it look like you're condemning me for things I can't help. After all, if I am wholly selfish, then what can I do? Just feel bad, nothing more.
A lot of times, the other person will start trying to soothe or reassure the self-denigrating offender: "No, no, that's not what I meant. I simply want you to stop doing..."
If I'm wrong, then why does my victim need to start reassuring me, stroking my ego, and taking care of me? I need to soothe her feelings and pay attention to her pain, not mine.
Or maybe instead of trying to soothe things, the victim starts yelling back and saying, "That's right! You are a selfish stupid scumbag!"
Again, I've thus made myself into the victim and my victim is now the offender. Ta-da!
It's all false and manipulative.
Finally, the self-denigration is a defense mechanism. If I beat myself up, then I've intercepted you before you can beat me up, metaphorically speaking. This also blocks me from hearing exactly what I've done wrong, so I can't make amends for it or work on changing it.
Yet again, the self-denigration keeps me stuck in my same old muck.
Confession without Condemnation
A lot of people indulge in self-flagellation unconsciously for the reasons explained above.
But if you were wincing with self-recognition as you read it, don't despair!
EVERYBODY indulges in escapist and defensive behavior, whether it's the above or something else.
And that's what we're here to fix, so don't be overly ashamed.
It's sort of like how even the most refined person can accidentally laugh so hard that she snorts or things fly out her nose or mouth. It's embarrassing, but it happens to everyone sometimes.
If you feel like you're really horrible, just take it to Hashem.
Even if you are really horrible (and you probably aren't), it's HIS doing, not yours.
You can discuss with him or you can write it out to Him to get to the root of it. You can pencil-sketch it or use colors to represent your different feelings, or whatever works for you.
But it boils down to 2 things:
- Tell Hashem your negative trait.
- Ask Him to help you fix it.
May we all succeed in completely polishing our souls in this lifetime.
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